I first discovered “French chic shopping” in my mother’s closet when I was around seven-years-old. I was enthralled with her hand-made crocodile pumps with spike heels, and her¬†suits consisting of jackets¬†with nipped-in waists and straight skirts, which she had¬†custom-made¬†on her honeymoon.
Timeless chic, the kind that the costume designer on Mad Men would have wanted to copy. I didn’t know it then, but both were clearly inspired by Christian Dior’s New Look, something I would first learn about when I moved to France in 1993.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, jeans and long Indian-print dresses were the uniform–a black dress was something you wore to a funeral, and tight-fitting skirts and nipped waist jackets were far, far away from college campuses as well as the suburbs I came from. In those days, women tended to wear polyester pant suits and tweed skirts.¬†Comfort and practicality were the order of the day.
When I got out of college, I was one of the first to wear vintage.¬† Even in the late 70s, Greenwich Village had a few stores selling gently-used Hawaiian shirts and print shirt-waist dresses which you could pick up for as little as $3. (Perhaps, I was nostalgic for a different era, even then).
Later, on a trade journalist’s salary, I moved up to discounted designers, Liz Claiborne and Ann Taylor, like many other women of my generation. Those were the days when we were trying to move up the corporate ladder and were dressing as chastely as possible–we wanted to be respected and therefore worked to come across as both polished and professional.
It wasn’t until I met Sabine Cassel, the mother of the actor Vincent Cassel, that I rediscovered French chic, on the job at Hachette Magazines where I was working as an in-house communications consultant in the early 90s. She advised me to shorten all my skirts, which I did. This being a French company, most of the editors wore black–set off by¬†striking costume jewelry and Herm√®s scarves.
In 1993, when I¬†moved to France,¬†I cut my¬†hair and ran around Paris in Gap chinos, a pseudo French sailor shirt, and canvas boots. I was eager to learn about Paris in all its phases, and I wanted to be comfortable and fast on my feet, while doing so.
I felt as if I had been smacked when a French photographer told me bluntly, “No one is going to turn around and look at you on the street, the way you are dressed.¬†” The night he took me to a racy nightclub in Montmartre, he slicked¬†my short dark hair, and told me to wear a white gabardine wool blazer without a shirt and a light brown suede skirt with very high heels. Although my feet were killing me, we got in the door. I felt¬†I was¬†wearing a disguise–and clearly I was.
It would take me¬†a long time to apply French chic to my own closet–even after I became a correspondant for Elle International between 1994 and 1997. While I had the privilege of interviewing and writing about a number of designers, including Giancarlo Ferre, Emmanuel Ungaro and Sonia Rykiel, I took pride in never asking for freebies or even to attend a press sale, in order to remain independent.
My go-to places for shopping in those lean years were Monoprix and Marks & Spencer, and when I splurged it was Platine (which has since gone out of business). Because I wanted to show my readers and guests that you could save money in Paris, I felt it was¬†appropriate for me to write a book titled Best Buys to French Chic, The Insider’s Guide to Shopping in Paris. (You can buy the ebook and paperback version through this blog, click here).
When the man who became my husband first met me, he told me rather pointedly: “You may have mastered the Best Buys aspect of your book, but you certainly don’t represent French Chic.”¬†He had a point. I was very happy to read and write about the¬†lives of French designers and the latest trends in¬†fashion magazines, but I had not yet applied what I was learning¬†to my¬†own life. Amor¬†vincit omnia. Love conquers all–including my reticence to change.
I learned from my future mother-in-law that making an effort to be chic pays–at least in France. You will get better treatment at the hairdresser, the high-end boutique, the restaurant, and even in business. In the country of seduction, making an effort to be elegant, with a touch of sexiness and wit, does make a difference. And you can do this at any age. That is why women in France pride themselves on being des “vielles jeunes femmes”–(old young women).
I also learned that French Chic doesn’t just have to do with dressing well, but with every aspect of our lives, whether it’s setting a table for dinner, furnishing a home, travelling to an exotic destination or attending a gallery opening or new museum exhibition. In short, it is a way of life, and one that makes¬†existence more bearable, especially in these days of financial crisis, global uncertainty, and professional stress. It is the alternative to ugliness and resignation, sloppiness and ignorance.
The quality and purpose of my life has been enhanced and improved by applying the lessons of French Chic. I not only dress better, I also have found time to cook differently, to¬†exercise, to take care of my skin, and to welcome different notions of beauty both in and outside the home. I have come to see the world differently, and therefore to regard myself differently with greater pride and self-esteem. This may be because I now am working to be¬†a person discovering and sharing the¬†best things¬†in the world around me, even if they cost relatively little.
I have learned that without that desire to see and to know, there can be no French Chic–not for ourselves, nor for anyone else.